Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
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April 23-25, 2004

What Really Happens in Thailand After 1 A.M.
by Jennifer Gampell

Bangkok -- Nobody would ever call me a party animal. Among devotees of the sophisticated club scene that's burgeoned in Bangkok over the past five years, I'm renowned for arriving unfashionably early, nursing one drink and leaving just as the fun starts. But though you can count on one hand the number of times I've ever partied til dawn, I've always liked knowing I could if I wanted to.

Well I can't any more. In early 2001 the Thai government embarked on a "social order" campaign, ostensibly to clean up the country's bawdy image and stop the moral decay of its youth. An old and long ignored law mandating 2 a.m. closing times for entertainment venues was resuscitated and, contrary to the usual mai pen rai ("no problem") Thai attitude towards law enforcement, was rigorously applied.

My many clubbing friends began recounting horrific tales of police raids and ignominious urine testings for drugs. One January 2002 night I arrived at the internationally acclaimed Q Bar -- the city's trendsetting New York-style lounge which opened in late 1999 -- to celebrate my birthday. An hour before the 2 a.m. closing, the police had already blocked the front entrance and were setting up a urinalysis table outside for the trapped patrons. I left instantly. Since then, I rarely visit any club.

This February the Interior Ministry announced that beginning March 1 the law would be further tightened: all bars and nightclubs in Thailand must close at midnight except for places located in so-called "entertainment zones," which could close at 2 a.m. Of the three vaguely delineated zones in Bangkok, the famous (or, rather, infamous) Patpong is probably familiar to everyone, but the other two are in out out-of-the-way areas frequented almost exclusively by Thais. Neither Q Bar, the über chic Bed Supper Club (its two year-old neighbor on the same street) nor any of the swank hotel clubs like Met Bar or 87 are located within a "zone."

Vociferous protests against the midnight closing regulation by people from all walks of the country's huge entertainment industry prompted a face-saving backdown by the government. Beginning on April 1, Thailand's myriad bars and nightclubs that don't lie within a "zone" must shut at 1 a.m.

"The government claims it wants to turn Bangkok into a sophisticated modern city and yet closes it at 1 a.m., forcing the revelry onto the street where it's unlicensed, unregulated and untaxed," opines DJ Billy, one of the regular house DJs at Q Bar. "Sukhumvit Road [an important central Bangkok thoroughfare] has become one big open-air brothel."

Around 12:30 a.m. on a Friday evening in early April, I began walking west along Sukhumvit from Soi 19 (a soi is a numbered street leading off a main roadway). At the bottom of the pedestrian overpass connecting the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit to the Westin Grande Sukhumvit hotels stood a trio of scantily clad Thai girls. They accosted every man who descended the stairs. Women and transvestite) were everywhere -- in phone booths, in driveways, on the steps leading to McDonald's.

Meanwhile at 1 a.m. as the police were turning on lights and shooing customers out of modish Q Bar and Bed into the sticky night steam, the Sukhumvit end of the same soi (11), was just springing to life. The folding metal tables and chairs being unloaded from pushcarts onto the smelly rubbish-laden sidewalks were soon occupied by prostitutes and sleazy punters. Vendors sold noodles and alcoholic drinks from two-wheeled roadside stands with names like "Wheelbarrow Bar." Everyone I talked to said they stayed open until dawn.

On the once laissez faire party island of Koh Samui in southern Thailand, the strictly enforced 1 a.m. closing time is infuriating owners and revelers alike. "It feels like a curfew," moans Maja Pauling, a 20-year-old Londoner who'd long heard about the notorious raves on Samui.

"Kids just want to have fun," agrees Eiaw [his Thai nickname], a partner in the legendary Green Mango club and a 16-year island resident. "They'll go ahead and make their own parties, but who knows what goes on there? When we could stay open til 3 or 4 a.m. we had good security. We checked IDs and policed for drugs. We took good care of our patrons."

The Green Mango group's business was already down by 30% after the 2 a.m. law came into effect. Like everyone else in Thailand's entertainment industry, Eiak can't imagine how either clubs or the people on the periphery --taxi drivers, food vendors, souvenir shops, etc. -- will survive the new crackdown. "Tourists come here with [around $3,500] and we give them so little time to spend it," he laments. "They go home with full pockets. That's bad marketing. We need to understand their culture even though it's not our culture."

"Tourists won't come back," agrees David Jacobson one of the owners of Q Bar. "I'm hearing from all over that people are going to Malaysia, Singapore and Bali instead." He's exploring other markets, Dubai, Shanghai, Taiwan for example, possibly to relocate or at least to open a new branch. "We want to be somewhere where the sophisticated nightlife we offer is appreciated instead of in a country that constantly hassles us."

"What does closing at 1 a.m. achieve?" wonders Kelly May, a dedicated partier and a journalist with a local English language newspaper. "It doesn't improve anyone's quality of life. If they [the government] are trying to improve social standards, they should be in the schools educating people, not closing nighttime places."

It's ironic that entertainment regulations in formerly straight-laced Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are loosening just as they're tightening in previously laid- back Thailand. "After living here almost 20 years, I never thought I'd see the day when nightlife in KL and Singapore would be more fun, interesting and exciting than in Bangkok," posits Tom Van Blarcom, managing director of a leading Bangkok PR consultancy.

Frankly neither did I.

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer.

Copyright 2004 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell